Farmer Oak (Hardy), John Farmer (Thoreau), and Flute Music

While reading the beginning of Chapter 2 in Far From the Madding Crowd [Penguin edition, p. 9-10], I found myself in a surprisingly familiar scene. Gabriel Oak is playing his flute while Hardy philosophizes around the music.  We’ve been here before – in a book published twenty years earlier and on the other side of the Atlantic.  When reading Walden, we encountered John Farmer sitting in his doorway listening to a flute while Thoreau philosophized around him.
Below is the last paragraph of “Higher Laws” in Thoreau’s Walden.  As Hardy’s passage is considerably longer, I’ve not posted it here but have put together a PDF file that contains both excerpts.

John Farmer sat at his door one September evening, after a hard day’s work, his mind still running on his labor more or less. Having bathed, he sat down to re-create his intellectual man. It was a rather cool evening, and some of his neighbors were apprehending a frost. He had not attended to the train of his thoughts long when he heard some one playing on a flute, and that sound harmonized with his mood. Still he thought of his work; but the burden of his thought was, that though this kept running in his head, and he found himself planning and contriving it against his will, yet it concerned him very little. It was no more than the scurf of his skin, which was constantly shuffled off. But the notes of the flute came home to his ears out of a different sphere from that he worked in, and suggested work for certain faculties which slumbered in him. They gently did away with the street, and the village, and the state in which he lived. A voice said to him,—Why do you stay here and live this mean moiling life, when a glorious existence is possible for you? Those same stars twinkle over other fields than these.—But how to come out of this condition and actually migrate thither? All that he could think of was to practise some new austerity, to let his mind descend into his body and redeem it, and treat himself with ever increasing respect.

Final Paragraph of “Higher Laws” in Thoreau, Walden

John Farmer (Thoreau) and Farmer Oak (Hardy) (PDF file)


P.P. (Pedant’s Point) Speaking as a former flute player, I can’t avoid mentioning that flutist is the original form of the word (first appearance, according to the OED, was in 1603).  By contrast, flautist first occurred in 1860.  As I understand it, this change was instigated by 19th century English musicians and writers of program notes in order to distinguish their flute players from the French (flûtiste).  I’ve always thought (and been taught) that American flutists didn’t need to indulge in such Francophobic affectation.

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